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Hearty Houseplants Green Up The Hamptons

Parlor palm (left) and two dracaenas thrive in average household conditions and love to spend summer outdoors on a shady deck. (Photo: Anne Halpin)

When winter winds blow outside, indoors your Hamptons home can be a verdant oasis. Sharing your living space with houseplants can help soothe your winter-weary soul and bring health benefits besides.

What's that you say? You have a brown thumb? You're so busy working and caring for kids and pets that you don't have time to fuss over houseplants? Never mind. Anybody can have houseplants. Even if you don't have a sunny window. Even if you're not good at watering and fertilizing. You just have to pick the right plants.

An Even Better Reason to Have Houseplants

Besides being able to just see something green and growing when you walk through your door after a hard day's work, there are other reasons to have some plants in your house. Plants add oxygen to the air, and some can actually purify the air inside your home. Yes, really. Scientists at NASA in the 1980s working on ways to keep the air clean inside spacecraft like the Shuttle discovered that houseplants can absorb toxins from the air. The atmosphere inside our homes and commercial buildings is tainted by volatile compounds such as formaldehyde and benzene coming from carpets, furniture (foam cushions, for example), laminated countertops and all manner of furnishings and building materials. The tighter and better insulated your house is, the more these substances can collect in your indoor air.

The toughest of the tough: peace lily will grow just about anywhere, and it blooms, too. (Photo: Anne Halpin)

Which Plants to Grow?

Now that you know there are real health benefits, besides the psychological lift of seeing greenery, to having some plants in your home which ones can you feasibly, easily, grow? Some houseplants are finicky, sure, but there are plenty that tolerate less-than-bright light and will forgive a fair degree of neglect. Some of them also score high on the list of effective absorbers of indoor air pollutants—a double bonus for you.

Here are some good bets for turning your brown thumb green. None of these plants require a sunny window, and some can take pretty dim places. None of them need to have evenly moist soil or regular fertilizing. Feed them when you can with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer. Let the soil dry out some between waterings. When you do water be thorough, but don't let the pot sit in water for hours. An easy method I use is when the soil is dry (the pot will feel light when you pick it up), I set the pot in a bucket of tepid to cool (not cold) water deep enough to cover the pot rim. When the bubbling stops, I lift the pot out of the bucket and let it drain in the sink. When the pot stops dripping, it's done. Another method is to water until water seeps from the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. Then let the pot sit in its saucer for 15 minutes to finish draining, then empty the saucer. Done.

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) is the toughest of the tough among houseplants, you've undoubtedly seen a peace lily someplace. The plant can be a foot to 4 feet high, with deep green, oblong leaves and white flowers that take the form of a flat oval petal (actually called a spathe) behind an upright fingerlike structure called a spadix. Peace lily is a good air freshener, and it's nearly impossible to kill. It'll grow in an office or a not-bright room. If you forget to water it for a while it will hold on for weeks until you remember. To pamper it, let the potting mix dry out a bit between thorough waterings and feed it several times a year.

Pothos (Epipremnum) is a vining plant with heart-shaped leaves marbled in white or yellow, pothos resembles the old-fashioned philodendron our grandmothers grew (and which is another easy-to-grow and effective air purifier). It is fine in bright indirect light; water when it's dry.

Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema) has dark green, oval leaves that may be plain green or splashed with white in a variety of patterns. Like peace lily, it can get by without much in the way of light or watering. Just give it a little love when you can.

Parlor palm and bamboo palm (Chamaedorea) are graceful, textural plants that can, over many years, grow large. Give them decent indirect light—they'll burn in a sunny window—and water when the soil is dry an inch below the surface. Like many foliage houseplants, palms love spending the summer outdoors on a deck or patio, as long as it's not too sunny.

Dracaenas. This genus of foliage plants typically have pointed leaves that grow from a straight central stem that can, over the years, thicken and become almost trunklike. I once had a corn plant dracaena (Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana', and yes, the leaves do look like corn leaves) that grew until it hit the ceiling and then, amazingly, bloomed with a big spike of fragrant white flowers. The corn plant dracaena has longitudinal golden stripes down the center of its leaves. Other dracaenas have leaves edged or striped in creamy white. The dragon tree (Dracaena marginata) has narrow, pointed green leaves edged in red. Dracaenas will be happy in moderate light but they don't need direct sun.

Snake plant (Sansevieria), in an earlier era also called mother-in-law's tongue, is a throwback to Victorian times. It grows as a clump of tall, stiff, vertical, pointed leaves that are edged, striped or banded with lighter green, silver or chartreuse. Snake plant will tolerate a lot of neglect (the one in my grandmother's house never seemed to get watered but was always there). And it adds an interesting sculptural accent to a room.

A couple of other tough, pollution-fighting plants you will undoubtedly be able to grow include English ivy and spider plant (Chlorophytum), which is usually grown in a hanging basket and is known for sending "babies" shooting over the edge of the pot on long stems (you can cut them off and plant them to start new plants).

I bet even you, brown thumber, will be able to grow these plants in your house. They'll make your winter feel warmer.

Four easy-to-grow houseplants, clockwise from rear: peace lily, bird's nest fern, snake plant and pothos. (Photo: Anne Halpin)

Anne is a writer, editor and professional gardener, and the author of 17 garden, home and nature books. She lives in Hampton Bays.

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